Football is a religion, and winning is its altar. During the Malaga match, BeIN commentator Andres Cordero made a very astute observation in a single sentence, when he said “From Lucho out to a treble-winning coach.”
Winning does that, but the right kind of winning, in quantities sufficient to defuse even the most hard-boiled curmudgeons who, like a misguided Twitter tactician, shapes a solution to fit an argument. Win enough, and it’s okay. Win more than enough, and all doubt is washed away.
Malaga played a match of football sufficient to beat most teams in the Liga, even Barça on another day. Iniesta said that the 1-1 halftime score was fair, but even that was being generous as Malaga laid siege to the Barça box, pressing, running, harrying and taking advantage of plentiful mistakes.
After the match Luis Enrique said, rightly so, he has never seen his team play a worse first half of football. Meanwhile in Barça land, opinions were plentiful about formations and possible subs, etc. As the second half began, the only sub made was Mathieu for Vermaelen, but the football on display was completely different. Was it tactics, or was it as simple as the better team saying, “We’re better than this.” We will never know what was said in that locker room, or if anything needed to be said, but football or any sport, really, always comes down to the athletes.
Messi hit the rockets in the second half, removing his cloak of invisibility. Iniesta entered what I call Asshole Mode, where he just destroys you and there is nothing you can do about it except mutter, under your breath, “Asshole!” The defense looked more solid because the team played off the front foot, moved the ball quickly and kept the pressure on Malaga, which removed the possibility of their high press. One of the rare times it was seen in the second half was after a lazy giveaway, which allowed Malaga to set up shop in the Barça end, albeit temporarily. Iniesta got the ball, and normal service was restored.
Even more interesting was that the second, match-winning goal came after one of those Malaga pressure sequences in the second half. Barça moved up the pitch quickly, Messi ran into space and Adriano found him with a glorious pass that Messi scissored home. It was a dynamic, delightful goal that was a thing of beauty while also encapsulating a great many complexities that this team and football club face.
In the first half Adriano wasn’t just a wrecking ball, but also just about the team’s most solid defender. But he hasn’t played well enough, or consistently enough, to be perceived differently than what he is, which is either a waste of space, or the player who cost the club Grimaldo. Likewise there was a piece after the match about Mascherano, how he had good moments, bad moments and on aggregate, he’s kinda what the team has right now. But the difficulty is of perception. Every player, in every match, has moments of high quality, and moments of what the hell? It is only supporter perception that colors those moments.
Nobody asked where Messi was in the first half, because who would dare? Busquets was as stanky as the rest of the team, and a less-favored midfielder would be burned alive if he’d had a similar half of football, on aggregate. When Adriano put that pass on the head of a pin for Messi, even crickets were wondering about the silence, as the first two reactions from my chair were “What a goal,” and “What a pass from Adriano!”
Barça won today because it was the more talented team, rather than the better team. As its coach said, the team had a terrible first half and a below-average second half. It beat a Malaga team that was playing over its heads as a collective, because Barça has better players. Both goals came not from a system, but from individual brilliance and smart counterattacking. A year ago at this same time those types of goals were anathema, derided because they weren’t Proper. No system, no idea, just luck and magic. Today they are celebrated as masterstrokes, because enough of the right kind of winning changes perception. “Individual brilliance” isn’t all that bad when it results in goals like the ones Barça scored today.
The difference between Barça and other teams is that Suarez can control a ball, bull into the box, keep control while walking a tightrope, bamboozle a defender and slide a perfect ball across to Munir for the tap in. Other teams have players who don’t have the same quality, the same control, the same decision making skills under pressure. The striker fumbles it over the end line, or the pass across the face of goal isn’t as fine and the keeper palms it away. The margins are small, but significant.
On the second goal, another team doesn’t have a “crap” player of the quality of Adriano who can, at the end of a dash up the sideline, drop in a ball like that, and they sure as hell don’t have an attacker who can make the space and finish the move like Messi can.
Those crucial differences resulted in a win and a valuable one, the kind upon which championships are built. For too much of the match Barça was a disjointed mess, and had to play their way out of the dilemma. The substitutions that Luis Enrique made facilitated that, but the digging out process had already begun. A year ago, this match is a disgusting win that isn’t the Way, but we’ll take it. Today, it’s different. That’s what the right kind of winning does.
On the same day, back at the home front, Barça B won its second match in a row. But as with last week, it was a win that nobody liked very much, and is it in part because the team hasn’t won enough, in sufficient quantity, to require a philosophical shift?
For those who haven’t been following, Barça B essentially cleaned house, rescinding the contracts of a pile of players with talent but who weren’t quite making the grade such as Dongou, Aitor and Babunski. There was much chagrin and bewilderment, even more when their replacements were non-Masia players, some older, to provide necessary skill sets. The idea is to fit the other pieces in with the most talented Masia players who are left, and craft a team that can battle its way up the table.
And for two weeks in a row, the team has won. This presents a quandary atop the existing one for Barça B, of precisely what the B team is for. In an ideal world, La Masia feeds Barça B which feeds the first team. In that ideal world, there are players with the talent to make that leap, so that a fully indoctrinated group is always ready to assume its rightful spot in the Camp Nou.
In the current world, where a magical class defines La Masia and expectations from that academy, there isn’t room for players not to be good enough. If they aren’t, it’s the fault of the coaches. After the Barça B goal, the players ran over and hugged the coach, an impressive gesture that says something about how the team perceives his work, even if he isn’t the right coach for so many supporters. People count the number of Masia players on the roster, and deem it insufficient. But for what?
Is the B team a professional group, or part of La Masia? That is, does La Masia provide players for B or is B a continuation of La Masia? If the former is true, then the team will move players around, buy, sell and rescind contracts as necessary to keep the B team in a league where it can be useful in providing potential players for the A team. And therefore, whatever B does to win matches and avoid being relegated, rock on. We assess the transfers as we would first-team transfers, on their potential effectiveness in helping the team get results.
If the latter is true, then it doesn’t matter that B was in the relegation zone as long as it is doing the job of training players in the right way and the right system, for the first team. Is the job of Barça B to train talent, or to win? Ideally, both, but that isn’t going to happen, a perfect system where Barça geniuses go cradle to grave with the club. And is this kind of “let’s win” B team essentially worthless to the first team, because it’s acting as a miniature first team rather than a training group within the club’s system? And what’s the solution to that problem? Make the B team a closed ecosystem, where only Masia players are used, like Athletic Club and its Basques-only restriction?
The academy is a source of immense pride for culers, as it should be. It has allowed Barça to build a team that would be a financial impossibility in the transfer market, and those players are legends. But it’s necessary to keep B in perspective, and decide what the expectation of that part of the system is.
There is probably no bigger dilemma than if the B team, newly restocked with “foreigners,” climbs up the table to safety and even plays well enough to earn promotion, because the right thing will have happened in the wrong way. One of the ways that at present, B is most like the first team is that complexity, that right result born of, for many, wrong action. It should be about number of Masia players and victories. But when both isn’t possible, which one is preferred?
This is, above and beyond the mismanagement of the B team, and the damage done by incorrect coaching choices, namely a man more interested in using B to get a proper Liga job than building players for the first team who can play in the proper way. At present, many want it both ways, an all-Masia XI for B, as well as a team in the promotion places in the table. That academy-rich side was relegated last season, and in the relegation zone this season. Wrong coach? Maybe. Yet that wrong coach has now won two matches in a row. Where does perception fit into all of this, and what of Barça B and its job of providing players for the first team?
Well, those players have to be good enough. As big as Dongou’s smile was, he was never going to be first-team material. Ever. Neither was Babunski, inspirational quotes aside, which leads to the question of what to do with players who aren’t going to be good enough to make the first team? Are they career B players, or does a club cut them loose so that they can build a career in a less-demanding system?
It’s easy for us to watch the first team beat teams such as Athletic and Malaga, and marvel at its tactical flexibility and depth, able to slot Arda Turan in anywhere, or have Aleix Vidal capably sub for Dani Alves. There is a footballing ideal that the first team has, and while the number of Masia players in that XI was a point of pride in the glory days, that time is past, even as we celebrate a team that is festooned with silver, that has won enough to be exempt from the examination that B is taking, and being found lacking.